Jessica Chou Interview: Taiwanese-American Photographer

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https://www.definingcultures.com/jessica-chou-interview-taiwanese-american-photographer/

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Constance Wu, Gwen Stefani, Beyoncé, Steve Aoki, Yves Saint Laurent, Airbnb, UNESCO, The New York Times, The Atlantic, Buzzfeed, ESPN – these are just some of Jessica Chou's past and present clients.

With a stroke of luck, Jessica delved right into the world of capturing celebrities during her first photo shoot opportunity, which occurred with L’Oréal Paris.

Her 20s were full of self-discovery, her first trip back to Taiwan since birth, and a host of editorial and commercial work gained from clients ranging from major publications and celebs, to startups and legacy brands.

And now – the art world is beginning to take a hold of her.


Born in Taipei, Taiwan, Jessica Chou began to call Los Angeles home at just 6 months old. Prior to her birth, her parents already called LA home, but chose to travel back to Taipei to be surrounded by family once Jessica made her grand entrance into the world.

Back in the U.S., Jessica was raised in San Gabriel Valley, which is home to the largest concentration of Asian-American communities in the United States, primarily Chinese-Americans. The second largest ethnic group is Mexican-Americans.

“The city I grew up in was the first city in the U.S. to have an Asian majority because of the Taiwanese immigrants in the neighborhood. In the 70s and 80s, there was a real drive to live here and it was very affordable…Back then, there were advertisements in newspapers in Hong Kong and Taiwan about San Gabriel being the Chinese Beverly Hills…that’s what got the thing going.”

So with a mix of suburbia and traditional Chinese culture, Jessica matched the tempo of her environment. She recalls having to attend tutoring lessons after school, piano lessons, and Chinese (Mandarin) classes on weekends.

All-in-all, she grew up with people who were similar to her. As a result, she rarely had to confront questions straying from her cultural identity.

But in the background, White Hollywood was at play. Movies and TV shows: “Watching it and thinking that in order to be cool, to look pretty, or to be accepted in mainstream, it would be better to be White.”

This would all change in college.

East Los Angeles College (ELAC)

At ELAC, Jessica met people who were interested in the same thing as her – the arts. Soon after, she really started to find a place for herself.

Starting with a photo class, simply to cover an arts credit, Jessica’s interest in photography made it’s way to the forefront. She not only began to envision a career in the creative industry, but her cultural identity was also taking a more solid form.

“I was hanging around different types of people who strongly identified as Latino. I saw them being proud of their culture…and showing it in an overt way. Seeing that was helpful for me.”

Proud of her culture and where she came from, Jessica was now on a new path – unashamed and ready to take on the world.

University of California Los Angeles (UCLA)

After completing her general education courses, Jessica transferred to UCLA and decided on History, with a focus on the Middle East.

You’re probably asking yourself the same thing I asked myself: Wait a minute…What happened to photography?

“When I was thinking about photography as an art, I also felt like I didn’t have that much to say. I wanted to explore what was going on in the world because there was so much stuff happening at the time. 9/11 happened [a few years back] and I didn’t know what people were talking about. I learned that there is a thing called photojournalism. So I thought that would be the perfect way to bridge my interest with the skill I had.”

Jessica was also aware of UCLA’s premier newspaper, The Daily Bruin, and their credible level of reporting. Because of them, Jessica figured that having a history background as a journalist would be very useful for her future photojournalism career. It was certainly a great way to do what she set out to do – to turn her lack in research into abundance.

In 2008, Jessica graduated from UCLA with a Bachelor of Arts in Middle East History.

jessica chou taiwanese american

New York to Taiwan

After graduation, Jessica decided to make the move to pursue her photography career in the Big Apple.

After completing a bunch of small projects, life just wasn’t going according to plan. But as we all know, everything happens for a reason. A semi-bleak 5 months in New York, pushed Jessica to experience an opportunity of a lifetime – a trip to Taiwan to reconnect with her past and family history, while simultaneously putting her skills to use.

“My aunt took me to help me with pursuing photography. So she got me an internship working on a special book project called “Da Jiang Da Hai 1949” [Big River, Big Sea – Untold Stories of 1949].” The book was published by Taiwan’s CommonWealth Magazine and Hong Kong’s Cosmos Books.

Jessica captured photos and went along with the writer, Lung Yingtai, who was interviewing Chinese people (from the mainland) who had escaped to Taiwan during China’s civil war, that ended in the Kuomintang’s defeat in 1949.

Jessica also found the time to volunteer at a cultural center and to pick up a job as a bar maid, which allowed her to hang out with expats. Yes, her schedule was pretty packed, but her daily life was filled with the sights, smells, and culture of Taiwan.

3 months in Taipei exposed her to more than just history. It was Jessica’s first time back since her birth. In addition to living in the apartment that her father grew up in, she was even able to speak with people that remembered her father when he used to live there.

“That was the first time I learned more about my identity.” Because her accent was pretty good, and her explanations of specific traditions she practiced in the U.S. resembled local traditions, Jessica was labeled as Taiwanese, 100%.

Back to reality

As soon as Jessica touched down in LA, she still was trying to figure out life and what to do a year post-graduation.

Photography was on her mind, but for some reason, she ended up doing things that were adjacent to photography or news. “I picked up an internship at ABC 7 as an Online Producer. I did that hoping to try to get a job afterwards and able to say I have a job.”

Then – a Studio Assistant for a wedding photographer.

Then – a stroke of luck!

“I got a job inquiry from a photo agency in Paris and they were looking for a behind the scenes photographer for a L’Oréal commercial shoot. I took that job, seriously underpaid, but it opened me up to a world where editors paid attention to me.”

For 2 years, Jessica found herself working with high profile celebrities. Gwen Stefani was her first, followed by other high-profiled figures.

Since then, her projects have included:

  • UNESCO Journeys to School – a photo exhibition dedicated to children around the world, and the challenges they face during their daily journey to school. Regardless of the great risks involved, the children hope that their education will lead to a better life. Jessica was responsible for taking photographs of children in South LA.
  • Suburban Chinatown – a personal project that Jessica has been working on since 2013. This montage takes on a visual meaning for the first Asian settlements that boomed in the 70s and 80s in the U.S. “It’s seeing how the immigrant community has grounded its way into this type of landscape. So it’s seeing assimilation as a two-way street.”
  • 36 Hours with Steve Aoki – On short notice from Billboard, Jessica hopped on an airplane at 6am, landed in Vegas, and went straight to the studio where Aoki was present. This unordinary day was welcomed with screaming, die-hard fans at a Vegas party at Wet Republic, starring Aoki – one of the highest-paid DJs in the world. By 11pm, they were on a red-eye headed to New York for his upcoming headliner at Mysteryland in Bethel, NY. “It was a rave…I slept for about 4 hours and stayed awake for 36 hours. He’s just one of those people that has an idea, and as crazy as it sounds, it’s just going to happen.”

As of today, Jessica is transitioning more into the art world. You can find some of her prints at the Tweed Museum of Art, located on the campus of the University of Minnesota.

Her advice to someone who may be struggling with their cultural identity:

“What makes you different is what makes you special...there's only so much bending out of shape a person can take. It's so much more liberating and satisfying to take control of your own identity and not let others tell you who and how you should be.”

Her advice to her 16-year-old self:

“Think bigger. Know that the world is much bigger. You don’t have to be confined to what you’re being told. There’s so many different ways to do things.”

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- Images courtesy of Jessica Chou

- To view Jessica’s images and projects, visit: jessica chou photography or follow her on Instagram: @choutoo